Democracy is a form of government where the people have the power to make decisions through either direct or representative means.
At its essence, it’s all about giving citizens a say in how their country is run.
Democracy can trace its roots back to Ancient Greece, but it wasn’t until the 18th century during the Age of Enlightenment when modern democracies began taking shape (Hodgson, 2019).
This article will compare and contrast the benefits and limitations of the five types of democracy: direct, representative, presidential, parliamentary, and constitutional.
Definition and Origins of Democracies
The philosophical concept of democracy originated in ancient Greece, with the term coming from the Greek words ‘demos’ (meaning people) and ‘kratos’ (meaning rule). So, we can define democracy as ‘rule of the people’.
And as we can see from Ritzer’s (2015) definition in Essentials of Sociology, that definition holds:
“Democracies are political systems in which people within a given state vote to choose their leaders and in some cases vote on legislation as well.”
It is believed to be the “most legitimate form of government in our contemporary era” Caramani (2020) because the leaders of a country are legitimized by the consent of the people. With regular elections, this consent (or, as they say in Canada, this mandate) can be renewed or revoked, and a new leader peacefully instated.
Furthermore, it is seen to fit egalitarian and liberal philosophical thought because, theoretically, anyone can become leader in a true democracy, rather than simply the elites or nobles. Of course, in many countries, a candidate needs wealth and connections to become a viable candidate, so this mentality exists more in theory than practice.
Types of Democracies
Modern democracies come in a few different types:
- Direct Democracy
- Representative Democracy
- Presidential Democracy
- Parliamentary Democracy
- Constitutional Democracy
Each is explained below, with examples, pros, and cons.
1. Direct Democracy
In a direct democracy, citizens actively participate in the decision-making process by voting directly on laws and policies (Pateman, 2013).
This means that there are no representatives or intermediaries between the people and the government.
Historically, ancient Athens is often cited as an example of a direct democracy. People directly voted on issues of the day.
However, in current times, this form of governance may no longer be practical due to the large size and complexity of modern societies.
- Referenda: In referenda, citizens vote on some issues through the use of a popular vote. For example, this would happen if the US Government wanted to amend the constitution.
- Ballot Initiatives: Many states in the USA use ballot initiatives during elections to ask people to vote directly on issues like tax reform.
- Ancient Greece: In ancient Athens, citizens gathered to debate and vote in the city’s agora on important matters.
Pros and Cons of Direct Democracy
|Direct democracy ensures that all citizens have an equal voice in government decision-making (Pateman, 2013).||Direct democracy ensures that all citizens have an equal voice in government decision-making.|
|Policy is decided solely by majority votes from the citizenry without interference from additional representatives downstream.||There’s potential for voters to be uninformed or ill-informed about certain issues leading to contradictory votes or inconclusive outcome.|
|Many technologies available in modern times make voting easy and accessible to a wider pool of citizens.||It may lead to inconvenience societal fractures where minorities interests become dominated (Pateman, 2013).|
Read Also: The Pros and Cons of Democracy
2. Representative Democracy
Representative democracy (also known as indirect democracy) is the most common type of democracy used today. In this model, citizens elect their representatives through free and fair elections.
The representatives then make decisions on behalf of the people they represent.
A representative democracy is different from a direct democracy in the way that decisions are made. In a direct democracy, citizens vote directly on laws and policies without any representatives (Hodgson, 2019). Therefore, every citizen holds the same amount of power regarding decision-making.
In contrast, a representative democracy is where citizens elect officials whom they give the authority to make such decisions on their behalf. For instance, elected representatives at different levels (federal or local) have extensive responsibilities ranging from pothole repairs to building bridges or crafting international trade agreements etc.
This implies that although citizens can vote during elections in a representative system, the elected officials assume duties related to governance and decision-making thereby creating critical accountability structures that hold politicians accountable to constituents in real-time.
Examples of Representative Democracy
- United States of America: The United States has a representative democracy with free and fair elections that determine officials at federal, state, and local levels.
- India: India, the world’s largest democracy, also operates as a parliamentary representative democracy where voters elect members from parties that win Parliamentary seats.
Representative Democracy Pros And Cons
|Compared to direct democracies, representative democracies can handle greater complexity due to having elected representatives with in-depth knowledge on policy matters.||Representative democracies can marginalize smaller groups if they do not fall under larger contingent majorities creating minority exclusion tendencies.|
|Participation in government translates into engagement with responsive governing officials being able to adjust public policies adequately according to popular feedback, creating more responsiveness overall (Hodgson, 2019).||The cost of running democratic elections often places a significant burden on potential candidates due to campaign costs especially pertaining to advertisements (Ritzer, 2015).|
|Mass media allows for widespread sharing of ideas while at the same time enabling constructive criticism.||Politicians elected through representative systems may not always prioritize pressing public issues but instead seem focused on personal gains as seen across many governance bodies globally.|
3. Presidential Democracy
A presidential system is a form of representative democracy where voters elect an executive branch leader (the president), who operates separately from legislative branches (such as parliament).
The American system has a highly representative character but also shows similarities with presidential governance trends worldwide because the chief executive holds significant powers vetoing budgets submitted by other branch members which cannot override such vetoes except by significant majorities or suspension processes.
Examples of Presidential Democracy
- United States of America: The United States holds federal presidential governance whereby people directly elect their president by electoral college through voting while presidential appointees serve as leaders until new appointments take place post-presidential elections.
- The Philippines: Philippines is another example of presidential democracy whereby the president holds executive authority with Congress serving as the legislative branch.
Presidential Democracy Pros And Cons
|Presidents operate outside legislative branches such as Parliaments enabling them stronger independent leadership roles often reducing gridlock in sectors.||The president holds too much unchecked power making it susceptible for abuse (Hodgson, 2019).|
|Elections mostly conducted by an electoral college reduces regional divides serving as hosts of power concentration; meaning Presidential outcomes favor statewide trend rather than Governmental Majority wins (Ritzer, 2015).||The presidential system presents some bureaucratic strangulation within governmental levels, affecting administrative terms and leading to wasteful spending priorities as seen in most African countries.|
4. Parliamentary Democracy
In parliamentary democracies, voters elect representatives who then form parliament where they collectively determine policy based on majority agreement. (Halperin, Siegle & Weinstein, 2005)
These countries place more power in the hands of a parliament rather than in the hands of an elected executive (eg. a president).
Some parliamentary democracies have a bicameral parliament. This means there are two elected bodies: a “lower house” (known in the USA as the congress) and an “upper house” (known in the USA as the senate and in the UK as the house of lords).
Generally, the “lower house” holds most power, and in countries like the UK and Canada, the upper house has been a review committee giving a rubber stamp. However, in the USA and Australia (as two examples), the upper house (known as the senate) has strong power to block bills (Hodgson, 2019).
Other nations, like New Zealand, have a unicameral parliamentary democracy, meaning is there just one house of representatives.
Examples of Parliamentary Democracy
- United Kingdom: The United Kingdom de facto operates under parliamentary rule where elected members form a parliament which debates policies that become laws after receiving approval from the Prime Minister. While the monarch (i.e. King Charles) gives royal assent, he de facto has no power to block laws.
- India: India is another example where it has regionalized parliamentary politics. It oftentimes relies upon coalitions of elected parties to generate consensus around legislative measures that need to pass both houses of parliament (Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha).
Parliamentary Democracy Pros and Cons
|It does not require a direct vote of the people for all bills, making it less of a burden than the direct democracy model.||In cases where there’s party polarization gridlock or lobby controls, it can slow down progress on important legislation crucial for a country’s economic stability.|
|Parliament encourages dialogue and debate across all societal strata. It presents policy proposals, which are put up by the media for debate and to test the mood of the people.||Parliamentary democracy leads to an overall rise in bureaucracy, sometimes stifling creativity|
|The parliamentary model tends to be highly responsive to the will of the people because elected representatives want to be re-elected by their constituents on a regular basis.||Important economic sectors (particularly the primary sector) may struggle due to red tape restrictions created by multiple oversight committees (Heo & Tan, 2001).|
5. Constitutional Democracy
A constitutional democracy is a type of democracy where individual rights, freedoms, and legal limitations on the government are outlined in a written constitution (OHCR, 2020).
Additionally, the powers, duties, responsibilities, and limitations of each branch of government are delineated under law.
In essence, this type of democracy represents a balance between having a majority rule while at the same time protecting individual rights.
This type of democracy is not mutually exclusive: for example, the United States is a presidential-constitutional government, and Australia is a parliamentary-constitutional government.
Constitutional Democracy Examples
- The United States: The United States operates under a constitutional republic whereby there are well-established checks and balances that go beyond elected oversight committees.
- Germany: Germany represents another example where federalism reigns supreme within multi-tiers governance structure from state to local authority
Constitutional Democracy Pros and Cons
|The Constitution outlines citizen rights which distinguish it from other governance types because they form regulatory safeguards against unwarranted infringement on human entitlements.||The judicial system interpretations of constitutional norms may lead to challenging forms of public policy negligence in crisis periods.|
|The framework provided by constitutional democracies allows for adequate oversight around key areas like elections for holding both politicians and judges accountable to constituents; leading to political stability across all levels.||Government institutions most times end up pursued politically partisan agenda instead failing over time to respond effectively as an independent non-government or institutional body.|
See Next: Democracy Examples
There are at least five types of democracy, each with their own pros and cons. While democracy holds as the best model of government that we have, it’s not perfect. Corruption, power, and privilege all distort the democratic model and give some citizens a greater voice than others. Thus, all democracies around the world continue to work to strengthen and protect their democratic systems against the ever-present threats of authoritarians and anti-democratic forces.
Read Also: Autocracy vs Democracy
Caramani, D. (Ed.). (2017). Comparative politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Halperin, M. H., Siegle, J. T., & Weinstein, M. M. (2005). The democracy advantage: How democracies promote prosperity and peace. New York: Routledge.
Heo, U., & Tan, A. C. (2001). Democracy and economic growth: A causal analysis. Comparative Politics, 33(4), 463–473. https://doi.org/10.2307/422444
Hodgson, G. M. (2019). Capitalism, cronyism, and democracy. The Independent Review, 23(3), 345–355. https://www.jstor.org/stable/45129594
OHCHR. (2020). About democracy and human rights. OHCHR. https://www.ohchr.org/en/about-democracy-and-human-rights
Pateman, C. (2012). Participatory Democracy Revisited. Perspectives on Politics, 10(1), 7–19. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592711004877
Ritzer, G. (2015). Essentials of sociology. London: Sage Publications.
Zhao, S. (2017). Grassroots democracy and social harmony. The Politics of Peasants, 157–164. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-4341-3_15
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]